To see how things are going in Manama these days, one need only look at the fighting in Damascus. As the possibility that the US and allied forces will conduct a military strike against Syria grows, the deck of cards in Bahrain, the small Gulf archipelago mired in sectarian division, is getting reshuffled.
On Aug. 28, the Bahraini opposition resumed talks with government representatives after a two-month hiatus. But, remarkably, the local media focused on the discussions regarding the Syrian file. The Akhbar al-Khaleej newspaper, which is affiliated with the prime minister, ran a story headlined: “Regional Events Have Strongly Imposed Themselves in the Dialogue Hall.”
Abdullah al-Huwaihi, the secretary-general of the National Unity Gathering, which is close to the government and is participating in the dialogue, provocatively addressed the opposition parties, saying, “A correct understanding of the regional situation should push the dialogue to be more balanced,” as quoted in Akhbar al-Khaleej. Huwaihi was insinuating that the opposition should make concessions.
The opposition reacted negatively. Akhbar al-Khaleej reported that Hassan al-Aali, the secretary-general of the Nationalist Democratic Rally, replied, “Everyone is affected by the situation in the region. But we are calling for a Bahraini solution to our problems.”
However, two and a half years after the outbreak of the Bahraini uprising and the emergence of the Saudi role as an additional factor prolonging the deadlock, a “Bahraini solution” may be an unachievable dream.
Last week’s developments provided more evidence that regional events are dominating the local scene.
During a crowded rally that the opposition called for on Friday [Sept. 7] al-Wefaq official Khalil al-Marzouq attacked the government for betting on the changes that may result from the expected US strike on Syria. He said, “You are betting on [what may come] after the destruction of the region?” he asked in a strongly worded speech, pointing out that “The regional situation may not end up being in the regime’s favor.”
The protesters added another slogan rejecting the aggression on Syria to their daily anti-government demonstrations, which usually end with clashes with the security forces.
Amid all that, Ibrahim Mohyiddin Khan, 19, was killed during the battles in Syria on Sept. 5. He was the sixth Bahraini to die fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra. He was the son of the head of the pro-government National Movement for Justice.
How much can the situation in Syria really affect Bahrain?
The Bahraini and Syrian situations are closely linked. Regional powers want change in Syria, but to maintain the status quo in Bahrain. The demographic weight of the Sunnis represents political leverage for change in Syria. But in Bahrain, the majority is Shiite. In both those countries, a minority rules over a majority, fueling the sectarian conflicts and setting the rules of the game for the various axes.
Abdulhadi Khalaf, a former leftist Bahraini parliamentarian and current professor at the University of Lund in Sweden, argued, “The longer the Syrian crisis goes on, the bigger its implications for Bahrain.” In an interview with Al-Monitor, he said, “Inciting against the Alawites in Syria goes hand-in-hand with demonizing the Shiites in Bahrain.”
He pointed to the government’s takfiri discourse toward its opponents, saying, “Before the Arab Spring, no one in Bahrain, no matter how arrogant, would have dared to call the opposition apostates. But that is normal today. The incitement campaigns aimed at raising funds or recruiting militants to fight in Syria have catalyzed and hardened the discourse of sectarian confrontation.”
Khalaf, who was stripped of his citizenship in 2013 by the Bahraini king, finds that the continuation of the crisis in Syria is unlikely to benefit the Bahraini regime. “Resolving the crisis in Syria through a regional and international agreement (Geneva II, for example) would make it easier to propose the same mechanism to resolve the crisis in Bahrain,” he said.
“A strike on Syria may give Iran a real opportunity to solidify its role, which it lost in 1979. If that happens, it would not be difficult for Iran and Saudi Arabia to agree on an arrangement that would be similar to what we have seen in the Nixon Principle, i.e., the Two-Pillar strategy under US auspices,” he continued.
Abdul Nabi Salman, the secretary-general of the leftist Progressive Forum and one of the opposition’s representatives in the national dialogue, has put forth a similar vision about what would happen if the key players in the Syrian arena agree on the solution in Bahrain. He told Al-Monitor that it “will define more clearly the nature of the solution. The regime wants to postpone the solution till after the situation in Syria is resolved.”
Former CIA officer Emile Nakhleh, who has written a book about the political developments in Bahrain, downplayed that possibility. In an interview with Al-Monitor, he said: “Demands for reform have been part of Bahrain’s political history since independence and are not connected to the current Syrian crisis whatsoever. Resolving the Syrian conflict via a settlement or by changing the power balance in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran have nothing to do with the Bahraini people’s demands for reform and social justice. It is deceiving and dishonorable for the Bahraini regime to link its harsh campaign against the opposition to what will happen in Syria. The continued instability in Bahrain over the long term doesn’t serve the interests of Saudi Arabia, the main sponsor of the Sunni minority regime in Bahrain or its regional relations.”
Most likely, a decisive outcome in Syria will not be enough, by itself, to push things forward in Bahrain. However, it will make clearer how the influential international forces in the region would coexist with this lingering Arab Spring issue.
Husain Marhoon is an independent Bahraini journalist. He has worked as a columnist and coordinator of the cultural pages for the Bahraini newspapers Al Waqt and Al Ayam. He covered the events of the Bahraini Spring since 2011 for several media outlets, and his articles have been published in a variety of Arab newspapers and periodicals, including Al-Akhbar, An-Nahar and Al-Jazeera. On Twitter: @marhoon